Conceptualization
Basic Introduction to Game Design

Conceptualization and Idea Generation

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Welcome to week six in the course: Basic Introduction to Game Design. Make sure to read the syl­labus and course infor­ma­tion before you con­tin­ue. In this post, we will dis­cuss the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion process in game design. This text fol­lows close­ly from our text­book (Game Design Workshop, Chapter 6). After hav­ing dis­cussed game sys­tems, and the roles that skill, prob­a­bil­i­ty, and chance play in games, we are shift­ing our focus to the idea of con­cept gen­er­a­tion. We need not define the act of gath­er­ing togeth­er game con­cepts as a fixed process. In fact, often, it is not. However, there are some meth­ods and tech­niques that will help you become more struc­tured in cre­at­ing your game ideas.

Where do you get your game concepts from?

Similar to most cre­ative process­es, your game ideas can be inspired by any­thing and any­one around you. Ideas are every­where. Being curi­ous helps; so does writ­ing things down. It is a good prac­tice to car­ry a small note­book with you to jot down game design ideas (rough ones) as they come to you. You can always elab­o­rate on them lat­er, but you will be prone to for­get if you do not record them. To help cod­i­fy a more for­mal game con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion process, our text­book dis­cuss­es five stages of cre­ativ­i­ty:

  1. Preparation. You study a top­ic or set of prob­lems deeply and gain deep under­stand­ing  of your cho­sen area of inter­est.
  2. Incubation. You keep the sub­ject mat­ter in your mind for a while, but are not con­scious­ly work­ing toward any par­tic­u­lar idea.
  3. Insight. Your aha-moment, when your idea starts mak­ing sense and works itself into a con­cept.
  4. Evaluation. You eval­u­ate your idea in terms of val­ue of pur­suit, that is to say, on the basis of orig­i­nal­i­ty, fea­si­bil­i­ty, and any poten­tial mar­ket val­ue.
  5. Elaboration. You for­mu­late your idea com­plete­ly and turn it into a sol­id con­cept. This is the hard­est part of ideation.

The stages of this process are not always lin­ear, and can be revis­it­ed in iter­a­tive cycles. The speed at which an idea turns into a con­cept depends on the per­son and any applic­a­ble envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors, such as the avail­abil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion­al resources or help­ful col­leagues. Also keep in mind that many game design­ers are inspired by oth­er media as well as their envi­ron­ment. The things around you can trig­ger sev­er­al iter­a­tions of the cre­ative process to occur every day, and it is up to you to turn those ideas into real­i­ties.

Brainstorming

A major com­po­nent of idea gen­er­a­tion and game con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion is the process of brain­storm­ing. There are some rules that should be applied to the brain­storm­ing process in order to max­i­mize its effi­ca­cy:

  • Have a chal­lenge ready. Having a design chal­lenge ready will trig­ger your cre­ativ­i­ty. Think of some­thing like design­ing a game that helps you to con­nect with loved ones that live far away. Any con­straints you can con­ceive will work well in cre­at­ing a suit­able design chal­lenge.
  • Focus on quan­ti­ty. You will need lots of ideas in the brain­storm­ing process, because you will need to be able to eval­u­ate them lat­er. The more ideas you cap­ture, the more like­ly you are to find a good one. Do not crit­i­cal­ly reflect on ideas dur­ing brain­storm­ing, just col­lect them and move on.
  • Don’t crit­i­cize. If you edit or cen­sor your ideas based on their qual­i­ty, you are miss­ing out on poten­tial­ly valu­able start­ing points, and slow­ing down the idea gen­er­a­tion process. Also, peo­ple that are crit­i­cized are less like­ly to con­tribute to the process of find­ing ideas, so make sure to encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion of team­mates by avoid­ing neg­a­tive crit­i­cism.
  • Appreciate the uncom­mon. Even if you think an idea does not work or would con­sid­er it unusu­al, it is often those “strange” ideas that gen­er­ate great val­ue. They might also serve as step­ping stones to even bet­ter ideas.
  • Combine and improve. Building upon one another’s ideas is nat­ur­al and nor­mal dur­ing brain­storm­ing, and helps you to gen­er­ate more ideas, so appre­ci­ate the process of mix­ing and remix­ing var­i­ous con­cepts.
  • Try dif­fer­ent meth­ods. While brain­storm­ing can be very effec­tive, you can add dif­fer­ent meth­ods into a brain­storm­ing ses­sion and pos­si­bly become even more cre­ative. See below for some exam­ples of oth­er ideation meth­ods that can be com­bined with brain­storm­ing.
  • Playful envi­ron­ment. A play­ful envi­ron­ment will help your ideas to move more quick­ly, and facil­i­tate inspi­ra­tion.
  • Put them on the wall. Visualizing your ideas on a wall or a large space that is vis­i­ble to all par­tic­i­pants helps to get every­one “on the same page” and think­ing active­ly.
  • Don’t go for too long. Brainstorming can be phys­i­cal­ly exhaust­ing, so make sure to give your­self a break dur­ing long ses­sions.

Other Ideation Methods

Brainstorming is not the only cre­ative method in our arse­nal. As men­tioned above, it makes sense to vary your cre­ative meth­ods from time to time, so you can incor­po­rate some of the fol­low­ing meth­ods into your idea gen­er­a­tion process:

  • Make a list. Start list­ing any­thing you know about a cer­tain area of inter­est. Create more than one list, using mul­ti­ple vari­a­tions of your core top­ic. Writing your ideas down helps you gen­er­ate new ones.
  • Use a deck of index cards. Work with a deck of index cards and write your ideas on them. Make sure to only write down one idea per card. Shuffle the cards, form two decks, and uncov­er a pair of cards. See how those two ideas work togeth­er. You can also do this with more decks, open­ing up even more com­bi­na­to­r­i­al pos­si­bil­i­ties.
  • Mind map­ping. There are lots of tools avail­able these days that help you cre­ate your ideas in form of a mind map (e.g., MindmeisterFreemind). Mind maps are visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the con­nec­tions between your ideas. These maps branch from one or more core ideas into ideas that are con­nect­ed to the core con­cepts. Often, you will use the core con­cept of your game as the cen­tral idea and pro­ceed to out­ward­ly map actions and feel­ings relat­ed to the core con­cept.
  • Stream of con­scious­ness. You basi­cal­ly start writ­ing down every­thing that comes to your mind for a cou­ple of min­utes (do not wor­ry about writ­ing it prop­er­ly, just write every­thing very quick­ly). Then stop, and read it over. Now you can edit and amend your thoughts.
  • Think aloud. Record your­self while say­ing what­ev­er comes to your mind. Do this for a cou­ple of min­utes, then lis­ten to your record­ing and tran­scribe it.
  • Cut-ups. You cut out words from news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, or oth­er read­ing mate­r­i­al, regard­ing any­thing that you think is inter­est­ing. You scram­ble your pile of cut-ups and then try to form a game con­cept based on this col­lec­tion.
  • Chance col­li­sion. Inspired by sur­re­al­ism, you can gen­er­ate new ideas by using chance and not pay­ing atten­tion to any par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion between con­cepts. Our text­book describes an exer­cise called “Exquisite Corpse” that uses this tech­nique. This is a game played with words. You write down an arti­cle and an adjec­tive on a piece of paper, fold it to con­ceal what you have writ­ten, and pass this on to your neigh­bour. Now, on the fold­ed paper, they write a noun, fold it again, and pass it on. Then a verb is writ­ten, next anoth­er arti­cle and adjec­tive, and final­ly, a noun. Now, you read what you have writ­ten and try to use this phrase as an idea for a game.
  • Research. Instead of ran­dom idea gen­er­a­tion, you can also delve into a sub­ject thor­ough­ly and try to under­stand it. If you are mak­ing a game about ice skat­ing, you should go and try ice skat­ing to bet­ter under­stand the expe­ri­ence. For exam­ple, the devel­op­ers of Far Cry 2 went on a trip to Africa to get a feel­ing for the envi­ron­ment they were try­ing to cre­ate for their game.

Edit and Refine

After you have suc­cess­ful­ly col­lect­ed lots of ideas, you should try to edit them, amend them, and trans­form them into some­thing action­able. This is the eval­u­a­tion process. Our text­book rec­om­mends eval­u­at­ing an idea based on these con­cepts:

  • Technical fea­si­bil­i­ty. You have to check whether your idea works on the plat­form that you are plan­ning to use and with the tech­nol­o­gy that you have.
  • Market oppor­tu­ni­ty. Will peo­ple actu­al­ly care about your idea? Is there a mar­ket for it? You should think about why peo­ple would buy a game based on your idea.
  • Artistic con­sid­er­a­tion. Maybe the idea that you have gen­er­at­ed does not work well with your team. Maybe it does not fit well with your artis­tic goals.
  • Business or cost restric­tions. Often you have to work with­in time and bud­get con­straints giv­en in your com­pa­ny, and some ideas may not be real­is­ti­cal­ly fea­si­ble giv­en these lim­i­ta­tions.

Turning your ideas into a game

Once you have refined your ideas, you need start think­ing about how they would work in a game. What would play­ers do in your game? For what goals would they strive? What pre­vents play­ers from reach­ing those goals? You want to focus pri­mar­i­ly on the for­mal ele­ments of games that we dis­cussed ear­li­er when start­ing to sketch out a game based on your ideas.

Further Reading

Am I miss­ing some­thing? Write a com­ment to this post at the very bot­tom of the page.

  1. Speaking on “Practical Creativity.” Raph Koster (2014).
  2. Everything is a remix. Kirby Ferguson (2012). Watch the videos.
  3. Experimental Gameplay Project.
  4. How to cre­ate ideas for a com­put­er game. Graham Horton.

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